As expected, some participants kept the whole sum and some split it 50-50 — but the surprising thing was how easily their generosity could be moulded by the subtleties of the word puzzle.

Participants who completed a puzzle peppered with religious words, such as “spirit,” “God” or “prophet,” largely decided to split the cash. Participants with neutral word puzzles, meanwhile, barely shared at all.

Even if they did not realize it, the belief in a “supernatural police” officer appeared to be inspiring subconscious outpourings of generosity, Mr. Norenzayan mused to reporters.

For decades, academia has largely ignored religion as irrelevant or at worst, parasitic. But a new — and controversial — theory holds that cities, agriculture and even society as we know it would never have taken hold if humanity had not believed a deity was keeping tabs. And now, with six years, $3-million and a travel schedule that will bring them to the most remote corners of the planet, a team of Vancouver researchers are out to prove once and for all that religion may be humanity’s greatest “cultural technology.”

“There is a view that religion is an ancient superstition that’s going to fall away,” said Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia and the lead of a massive Canadian project billed as world’s largest academic study of religion.